Today’s surprising newspaper archives find is this 1949 proposal to demolish the Grassmarket and replace it with a Festival District. This (unofficial) plan includes a 3500 seat opera hall, 1500 concert theatre, 700 seat small theatre, two art and exhibition galleries, amphitheatre, a restaurant to seat 2,000 in a single sitting, a school of music and practice rooms, ornamental gardens, a multi-storey car park and so much more!
The proposal was by two “young Scotsmen”; the architect was John Netherby Graham ARIBA and he was assisted by a friend he had made during wartime service, H. A. Rendel Govan MTPI. The two had apparently whiled away their demob time coming up with the scheme after discussing it during the war. They had considered the site of Calton Hill, possibly incorporating the Royal High School (there were plans, even at that stage, to move the school out of Thomas Hamilton’s neoclassical Georgian building). However it was felt to be too exposed a site for the public plaza and amphitheatre they had in mind, so the more sheltered Grassmarket, in the shadow of the Castle Rock was chosen.
The London Illustrated News article noted that the Corporation and Festival Society had as yet made no direct move towards establishment of such a cultural centre. The Scotsman , reporting on the proposal, noted Edinburgh’s lack of an opera house or theatre with a sufficiently large orchestra pit (for which numerous proposals have come and gone and never been fulfilled), and that the Grassmarket “would not suffer from redevelopment“. It was pointed out that the district showed “limited signs of revival” and that few of the buildings were paritcularly old (most were Victorian rebuilds), and few had any real “architectural quality to warrant preservation.” The artist’s impression for that newspaper shows buildings of a more modern style than those of the London Illustrated News.
The scheme put the multistorey carpark at its heart, and envisaged further demolitions to build access roads from Johnston Terrace and Lauriston Place, and the whole plaza of the Grassmarket would form a one-way traffic gyratory around its edge, with the gardens within that ring road. The Castlehill Primary School (now the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre) was to be demolished to make way for a new foot access corridor up the Mound, up Ramsay Lane and down the other side into the Grassmarket.
The Grassmarket scheme however had gotten ahead of itself, being published before Patrick Abercrombie’s officially commissioned “Civic Survey and Plan” had published its conclusions. This latter plan demolished the Grassmarket too, but zoned it for housing and new schools, instead opting for a split cultural centre, with some facilities grouped around the existing Usher Hall and the Opera House at St. James Square.
There was also the unanswered question of paying for it all.
In regard to finance it is stated that it is sufficient to assume at this stage that a very large sum would be required in addition to the sum required in respect of compensation for the present buildings and in order to render the undertaking as free as possible from financial worry as large a figures as possible should be aimed at. The total figure would amount to several millions, but in view of the vast repercussions which such an undertaking would have on the life of the city, it might not be unreasonable.Scotsman. September 1st 1949.
After a brief flurry of pro-and-anti letters to the papers, by October 1949 the unofficial plan had run its course and would remain just that: unofficial and a plan. Edinburgh never got its opera house, despite numerous attempts and demolishing sites in anticipation for it. What it did finally get – eventually – was a home for the Traverse Theatre in the corner of a hole demolished for the Opera House in 1966 and left empty for the next 25 years.
And when it did finally get a new cultural venue on this site, the lions share of it was turned over to a new office development to help finance the scheme.
Footnote, John Netherby Graham, the architect of the 1949 Festival District scheme, is a different John Graham from his contemporary architect who was behind the Harlow New Town in Essex.
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